|The Return of the Refugees; the Key to Peace
Source: ICJ and CIMEL paper, June 1997
Salman H. Abu-Sitta
Millions of people around the world have seen the
40-minute slow, savage, deliberate murder of a 12-year
boy, huddled behind his distraught father, who was
waving desperately for the killers to stop shooting.
Within the frame of a camera, the world witnessed
the unfolding of the second Palestinian Nakba, replayed
yet again: an unarmed civil population in their homeland
facing a foreign army – descending upon their
shores from as far as Moscow and New York, armed to
the teeth, supported by western money and political
clout. This is the story of Palestine played over
and over again, without the moral power of human rights,
and without the military power of international law,
ever coming to their rescue.
There is nothing like it in modern history. A foreign
minority attacking the national majority in its own
homeland, expelling virtually all of its population,
obliterating its physical and cultural landmarks,
planning and supporting this unholy enterprise from
abroad, and claiming that this hideous crime is a
divine intervention and victory for civilization.
This is the largest ethnic cleansing operation in
modern history. (Fig.1)
The population of 530 towns and villages were expelled
at gunpoint. They had been driven out by the horror
of at least 35 reported massacres. According to Israeli
files recently released, 89% of the villages have
been depopulated by Israeli military assaults, and
10% by psychological warfare. That leaves only 1%
who left on their own accord.
The refugees were the majority (85%) of the Palestinian
inhabitants of the land that became Israel. Their
land is 92% of Israel’s area. Thus, Israel was
created on a land, of which it does not own 92%. (Fig.2)
Today, there are 5.25 million refugees. They represent
two-thirds of the Palestinian people. On the same
scale, can you imagine that there are 160 million
homeless in America! Of the refugees, only 3.8 million
are registered with UNRWA – i.e. 75% of all
refugees. We should remember that the figures frequently
quoted by the press are a gross underestimate.
In spite of five major wars, occupation, and oppression,
there are still 88% of the refugees in historical
Palestine and in a 100-miles wide band around it.
This is an indication of the bond they have to their
homeland. There are 12% of refugees in Arab and foreign
countries equally divided.
While the refugees were struggling to return home
all these years since 1948, aided by the full moral
weight of international law, Israel and its supporters
have been concocting plans to complete the ethnic
cleansing operation. No less than 40 plans have been
proposed. All are similar in their objective but vary
They are all based on the notions that (a) Palestinians
are not a people, just a bunch of Arabs who can live
anywhere; (b) there is no Palestine, only Eretz Israel;
(c) Palestinians do not deserve their land as they
the Israelis do; and (d) Israel could help these Palestinians
to relocate elsewhere as a humanitarian gesture.
Needless to say, these are patently racist ideas.
But wait until you hear the latest edition, proposed
by the Russian American Jewish lawyer, Donna Arzt.
In her book “Refugees into Citizens”,
she proposes what appears to be a humanitarian plan;
that is to settle Palestinians anywhere in the world,
except in their home. By analysis of her plan (Fig.3),
you will find she proposes to ship one and a half
million people to diverse locations and force the
others to stay where they are in exile. That needs
lots of trains and planes. Perhaps nobody learnt anything
from the Nazi Holocaust. It is a sad reflection on
the moral character of those who, more than any other
people, should have learnt lessons from past tragedies.
In today’s world, ethnic cleansing is a war
crime. Forcible resettlement is a war crime. In fact,
settling the occupier’s people in the occupied
territory is a war crime. To expel Palestinians is
a war crime; to prevent their return to their homes
is a war crime; to resettle them elsewhere is a war
crime; to replace them with the occupiers is also
a war crime.
Why should not the refugees return to their homes,
as the case in Kosovo, Timor, Kuwait, and countless
The international law is solidly behind them. Resolution
194, calling for their Right to Return, has been affirmed
by the international community over 100 times in 52
years. This right is a Basic Right, it supercedes
any political agreement, has no statute of limitation
and cannot be negotiated away by proxy or by any representation.
The Right of Return is enshrined in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13) and in the
sanctity of private ownership which cannot be extinguished
by sovereignty, occupation or passage of time.
Who can deny this solid right? Israel and the US
do, but not the rest of the world. Israel further
gives practical obstacles as the argument against
return. Let us examine them one by one.
It is often claimed that the country is full, and
that there is no space left for the Palestinians.
Nothing is further from the truth. Of course, even
if that were true, the right of return is not diminished.
If an occupier expels an owner of a house at gunpoint,
he is not entitled to keep the house just because
he filled it with his cousins and friends.
Let us examine Israel’s demography. We can
divide Israel demographically into A, B, C areas.
Area A has a population of 3,013,000 Jews (end of
1997) and its area is 1,628 sq. km, which is the same
area and largely in the same location as the land
which the Jews purchased or acquired in 1948. Its
area is 8% of Israel. This is the total extent of
Jewish ownership in Israel. Clearly 92% of Israel
is Palestinian. In this 8% lives two thirds of the
Jews. Here is the heaviest Jewish concentration. Most
Jews still live in the same old neighbourhood of 1948.
Area B has a mixed population. Its area, which is
6% of Israel, is just less than the land of Palestinians
who remained in Israel. A further 10% of the Jews
live there. Thus, in a nutshell, 78% of the Jews live
in 14% of Israel.
That leaves Area C, which is 86% of Israel. This
is largely the land and the home of the Palestinian
refugees. Who lives there today? Apart from the remaining
Palestinians, the majority of the Jews who now live
there live in a few towns (shown circles according
860,000 urban Jews live in either originally Palestinian
towns or newly established towns. The average size
of a new town in Area C is comparable to the size
of a refugee camp. In fact, Jabaliya camp in Gaza
is larger than two new towns in north C and larger
than three new towns in south C. If Jabaliya camp
were a town in Israel, its rank in terms of size would
be in the top 8% of Israeli urban centers.
Who then controls the vast Palestinian land in area
C? Only 200,000 rural Jews exploit the land and heritage
of over 5 million refugees packed in refugee camps
and denied the right to return. Those who derive their
livelihood from agriculture are only 8,600 Kibbutzniks,
assisted by 22,600 Jewish employed workers and 24,300
foreign workers from Thailand.
The refugees in Gaza are crammed at a density of
4,200 persons per sq. km. If you were one of those
refugees, and you look across the barbed wire to your
land in Israel, and you see it almost empty, at 5
persons/sq. km, (almost one thousand times less density
than Gaza!) what would you feel? Peaceful? Content??
This striking contrast is the root of all the suffering.
It can only be eliminated with the return of the refugees.
This minority of rural Jews, holding 5 million refugees
hostage, is obstructing all prospects of a just peace.
What do those rural Jews do? We are told they cultivate
the (Palestinian) land and produce wonderful agriculture.
We are not told that three quarters of the Kibbutz
are economically bankrupt and that only 26% of them
produce most of the agriculture. We are not told that
the Kibbutz is ideologically bankrupt; there is constant
desertion, and very few new recruits. Irrigation takes
up about 60-80% of the water in Israel, 2/3 of it
is stolen Arab water. Agriculture in the southern
district alone uses 500 million cubic meters of water
per year. This is equal to the entire water resources
of the West Bank now confiscated by Israel. This is
equal to the entire resources of upper Jordan including
lake Tiberias for which Israel is obstructing peace
with Syria. Total irrigation water, a very likely
cause of war, produces agricultural products worth
only 1.8% of Israel’s GDP. Such waste, such
extravagance, such disregard for the suffering of
the refugees, and such denial of their rights is exercised
by this small minority of Kibbutzniks, who could be
accommodated in only three of the 60 refugee camps
scattered in the Middle East. When the refugees return
to their land, they can pursue their agricultural
pursuits, and no doubt this will take up the slack
in GDP. More importantly, peace will be a real possibility.
Let us consider two scenarios, which if applied are
likely to diffuse much of the tension in the Middle
East. Let us imagine that the registered refugees
in Lebanon (362,000) are allowed to return to their
homes in Galilee. Even today, Galilee is still largely
Arab. Palestinians there outnumber the Jews one and
a half times. If the Lebanon refugees return to their
homes in Galilee, the Jewish concentration in Area
A will hardly feel the difference, and the Jews will
remain a majority in all areas, even when they are
least in number, like area C. To illustrate this,
we plotted all existing built-up areas today and shown
the location of the depopulated villages. (Fig.5)
You can see clearly there is not the slightest interference,
which shows that original villages can be rebuilt
on the same spot. (I shall talk later about the middle
portion of the slide).
Furthermore, if the 760,000 registered refugees in
Gaza are allowed to return to their homes in the south,
now largely empty, they can return to their same original
villages, while the percentage of the Jewish majority
in the centre (area A) will drop by only 6%. The number
of these rural Jews who may be affected by the return
of Gaza refugees to their homes in the south does
not exceed 78,000 or the size of a single refugee
camp. This is a glaring example of the miscarriage
One of the manifestations of such injustice is that
the Russian immigrants are freely admitted to live
on Palestinian land simply because they claim to be
Jews. The striking fact is that their number is almost
the same as that of Lebanon and Gaza refugees combined.
Those refugees are denied the right to return while
those Russian immigrants are taking their place, their
homes, and their land.
So much for the claim of the physical “impossibility”
of the return. The vacancy of Palestinian land is
so problematic to Israel that it is trying to find
people to live on this land. None other than Sharon
and Eitan, both hardcore Zionists, started a scheme
in 1997 to sell the refugees land to builders to build
apartments so that an American or Australian Jew can
buy an apartment without being an Israeli. Kibbutz
farmers who rented this land from the Custodian of
Absentee (i.e. refugee) Property received a “compensation”
up to 25% of its sale value. This made the bankrupt
farmers rich overnight. City dwellers who did not
share this wealth went into uproar and the Ronen Committee
was formed to submit a moderating proposal to limit
this sudden wealth. There is now a debate in the Knesset
This illegal activity, selling a land in custody,
prompted the UN to issue resolutions affirming the
entitlement of the refugees to receive any income
of their property for the last 50 years and calling
on all states to present all documents and information
they may have on the refugees’ property. In
September 1998 and again in 2000, the Arab League
passed a resolution to call on the UN to send a fact-finding
mission to report on the status of the refugees’
land and appoint a Custodian to protect their property.
But, to date, lands continue to be sold without international
Now it is often said that Israel opposes the return
of the refugees on the basis that this will change
the Jewish character of the state. What do they mean
by the phrase “Jewish Character”? Do they
mean legal, social, demographic or religious character?
Let us examine these one by one.
First, what is the legal meaning of the Jewish Character?
In the words of a noted Jurist, (Mallison): “The
Jewish character is really a euphemism for the Zionist
discriminatory statutes of the State of Israel which
violate the human rights provisions… The UN
is under no more of legal obligation to maintain Zionism
in Israel than it is to maintain apartheid in the
Republic of South Africa.” Not only this is
immoral, it is also illegal under the enlightened
Human Rights law and is abhorrent to the civilized
world. In March 2000, the reports of Treaty-Based
Committees, such as Human Rights Committee, Committee
on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Committee
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Committee
against Torture, have all condemned Israeli practices
and characterized, for the first time so clearly,
the exclusive structure of the Israeli law as the
root cause of all those violations of international
law. How, then, can the international community accept
the premise of a “Jewish character” as
a basis for the denial of the right to return home?
If they mean a social Jewish character, this idea
is clearly a misnomer. Would anyone believe there
is much in common between a Brooklyn Jew and an Ethiopian
Jew? Or between a Russian claiming to be a Jew and
a Moroccan Jew? We know that the gulf between the
Ashkenazi and the Haredim can never be bridged. The
Sephardim (Mizrahim) are allocated the lower rings
of the social ladder. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are being
polarised on sectarian lines. Israel has long given
up on the idea of a melting pot.
There are 32 languages spoken in Israel. Prof. Etzioni
Halevi of Bar Ibn University and a specialist on the
Jewish national identity says, “we are not a
single people, language is different, attire is different,
behaviour and attitude are different, even the sense
of identity is different.”
If you take into account the Palestinians and non-Jewish
Russians (42% of them), you get 30% non-Jews in Israel
and 70% Jews. How can you call this a homogeneous
If they mean by the Jewish Character the numerical
superiority of Jews, they have to think again. The
Palestinians who remained in their homes now represent
26% of all Jews. They are everywhere. (Fig. 6) In
area A (the highest concentration of the Jews), they
are 11% of the Jews. In the mixed area B, they are
21% of the Jews. In area C they are 70% of Jews on
average, but they are double the number of Jews in
the Little Triangle and 1.5 times the number of the
Jews in Galilee. How could Israel ignore their presence?
Will Israel plan another massive ethnic cleansing
operation? Very unlikely. If attempted, there will
be a sea of blood. They are there to stay, and increase.
In the year 2010, Palestinians in Israel will be 35%
of Jews and they will be equal to the number of Jews
in 2050 or much earlier when immigration dries up.
So what is the value of chasing an elusive target
while innocent people wait in the refugee camps?
In Palestine today, (Israel, West Bank and Gaza)
– – Palestinians are already 47% of the
whole population. They will be equal in number to
Jews in 4 years time.
The Israeli notion of numerical superiority is therefore
impractical and shortsighted. So is the notion of
exclusive and homogeneous Jewish society. Neither
has any chance of success. On the contrary, maintaining
those racist policies will alienate most of the world
(as it does today) and will accumulate a great deal
of anger that may explode one day with disastrous
If they mean the religious Jewish character, who
says this is in danger? For one thousand years, the
Jews did not find a haven anywhere for their religious
practice better than the Arab world.
One must conclude that the cliché “Jewish
character” is meant to justify keeping the land
and expelling its people.
[The refugees are not only those in the camps and
in exile. There are other refugees, citizens of the
State of Israel, still not allowed to return home.
The Palestinians who remained in their homes, after
the Israeli invasion of 1948, were locked up as virtual
prisoners of war under Martial laws for 18 years until
1966. The military governor has the power to detain
any body, and prohibit the population from travelling
anywhere. No exit or entry to villages was allowed.
We know that all expelled refugees were declared
“Absent”, their land and property were
confiscated by the Custodian of Absentee property
which turned it over to the Development Authority,
which in turn put it under the management of Israel
Land Administration (ILA). ILA today controls 92.6%
of Israel’s area that is essentially Palestinian
But those who remained, and did not happen to be
in a particular place on a particular day, were also
registered as Absent and their land was confiscated.
Their number now is 250,000. They are internal refugees,
although they are Israeli citizens. They are dubbed
‘Present Absentees’, an oxymoron in itself,
and a term clearly describing the fallacy of Israeli
Israel created a web of fictitious legal formulation
to confiscate Palestinian property. It would confiscate
land for public interest, public security, absorption
of immigrants or any contrived purpose. Land was confiscated
under the pretext that it is “uncultivated”;
it is uncultivated because the owner is expelled and
not allowed to return. If the owner is there and cultivates
his land, the area is declared “closed”
by military order and no one is allowed to enter.
After 3 years the land is then declared “uncultivated”,
and subsequently confiscated.
The confiscated land is restricted to the benefit
of Jews only. Laws prohibit the use, lease, and mere
presence, of non-Jews on this land. This is the institutional
racism, repeatedly condemned by human rights groups.
With population growth and scarcity of land, Israeli
Palestinians had to build new houses on their land,
which develop into villages. These villages are not
shown on Israeli maps, not provided with utilities,
health or education services, not even connected to
roads. These are so called “unrecognized villages”.
There are over 40 such villages in the north. (open
circles in Fig.7)
In the southern district of Beer Sheba, the situation
is much worse. Half of the population of 130,000 in
Beer Sheba live in 45 unrecognized villages. (Fig.8) Their property rights are completely denied. They
are plagued by a fascist military force called Green
Patrol. This Patrol evicts people from their land,
shoots flocks and dogs, pulls down houses, ploughs
over crops, uproots fruit and olive trees, sprays
crops with toxic material and demolishes dams.
The most cruel of the racist Israeli policies are
practised in Beer Sheba. Despite overwhelming evidence
of brutality, charges against Green Patrol have been
Where does all this lead us? There is no question
that the Israeli racist practices, denial of human
rights, contempt for international law is the root
of all evil and should not be allowed to continue.
At the moment, Israel is shielded from punishment
and censure by its military force and political protection,
both provided blindly by the US Congress and Administration,
to the detriment of the US own interests.
Against this massive power stands the determined
struggle of the civil population of Palestine. Now,
they are supported by an astonishingly huge world-wide
constituency. Demonstrations were held across the
world to express outrage and condemnation of Israel.
There are hundreds of societies and NGOs, which condemned
this injustice and oppression. Many of these societies
have made inroads into their parliaments. All these
efforts are directed towards implementing international
law and human rights.
Israel and the US are isolated in this huge arena
of the world public opinion and in the United Nations.
How long can this go on?
The US policy in the Middle East has two pillars:
the first is to secure oil supplies and the second
is the unquestioning support of Israel.
In 1930, the Arabs favoured the US by giving them
oil concessions in preference to Britain and France,
whose colonial past did not make them acceptable partners.
The US appeared to be a “clean” country,
honest and diligent.
That is until the creation of Israel in 1948 and
the unashamedly expedient political policies of Truman,
who preferred his own electoral interest to his country’s.
Eisenhower and Kennedy restored the balance. It was
reversed again by Johnson and successors. Since then,
the US administration supplied Israel with a huge
arsenal of weapons, $135 billion of taxpayers money,
more than the aid granted to Sub-Saharan Africa, all
of Latin America, all of the Caribbean combined. This
is in addition to unqualified and singularly-biased
The anger and outrage felt by the Arabs towards the
US support of Israel’s occupation of Arab lands
seriously damaged US-Arab relations and in some occasions
threatened the oil supply. Thus, Israel demolished
the good will which has been the character of the
Arab-American relationship since the beginning of
the last century.
So far, the US has succeeded in maintaining two opposite
policies: hurting the Arab interests and getting their
This obviously cannot go on. It is clear from the
swell of indignation in the Arab world that their
rulers must now follow a policy of reciprocal action.
Good relations could prevail only if respect for national
interests is reciprocated, not to speak of respect
for international law.
Israel pursues a policy of unattainable objectives.
Its dream of numerical superiority is short-lived.
Its practice of apartheid and racism is doomed. Its
denial of human rights will not remain uncensured.
Finally its total dependence on its military right,
and on US singular obedience to its every whim, is
the epitome of short-sightedness.
If Israel is to survive where it has been planted,
it should uphold the common principles by which neighbours
live: each on the territory he owns, not on the territory
he occupies by force. Rights of each party must be
As for the Palestinians, they have endured their
own holocaust (Nakba) of 1948, suffered wars, occupation
and oppression. But they still exist; they survived.
There is no way they could disappear however Israel
wishes them to do so.
The example of Intifada 2000 shows that the Palestinians
cannot simply continue to look across the barbed wire
and see their homes occupied by Russians and Ethiopians
while they rot in refugee camps. They must return
home. This is in the Israelis’ best interest
in the long run. This is in the long-term interest
of the US. This is in the interest of peace and stability
in the Middle East. This is what the whole world has
affirmed year after year since 1948.
The Palestinians are determined to win their freedom
and recover their basic rights. Justice will no doubt
prevail. The question is: how many boys, like Durra,
will die before this happens.